Bo Sisounthone doesn’t live in Chinatown, but he considers his open-air butcher kiosk in Maunakea Marketplace home and his customers family.
“We talk story and time flies by fast,” said Sisounthone, who is originally from Laos. “I’ll probably stay here until the day I die.”
Maunakea Marketplace, which recently went up for sale, is the largest of three open-air marketplaces in Chinatown. Whole pigs hang from the ceilings and fresh produce fills kiosks with color. These commercial spaces keep the historic district, just Ewa of the business district, buzzing with activity during the day.
Understanding the areas that surround Chinatown is essential to understanding the neighborhood itself. Thousands of people pass through Chinatown every day to work and shop, many commuting on foot or bus from neighboring Liliha and Kapalama.
Public housing like Maunakea Tower and River Pauahi Apartments within Chinatown and nearby Kukui Gardens offer affordable housing options.
“Chinese and Korean are spoken as much as English,” Rep. Karl Rhoads of the 29th District said of these housing complexes.
Private high rises, like Honolulu Tower, cater to urban professionals and Hawaii Pacific University students alike.
Besides residential towers, Chinatown consists of mostly older, two-story buildings with ground-floor commercial space and some second-story lofts.
Throughout his lifetime, Joe Young, named by Mayor Kirk Caldwell as the honorary mayor of Chinatown, has watched immigrants to Hawaii build community there and find the “American dream.”
“People stick together because of language,” Young said, and groups offer fellowship and support. But as immigrant populations age and offspring grow up “American,” the groups lose active members.
“I don’t consider Chinatown ethnically Chinese,” said Wesley Fong, the former president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
The pork sold at Sisounthone’s butcher stand might end up in Filipino adobo, Vietnamese pho, Laotian larb or wrapped in taro leaves for Hawaiian kalua pork.
Those who seek to develop Chinatown see its rich culture as a marketable aspect to attract both tourists and locals to the neighborhood.
Hailed as the island’s arts district, in the past two decades young artists and entrepreneurs have moved into Chinatown to set up shop.
“Our Chinatown is very unique,” said Fong. He’s visited a number of Chinatowns across the U.S. and in Canada. “You’re not going to have the trendy restaurants or bars in the San Francisco Chinatown.”
The Diamond Head side of Chinatown bustles with new gastropubs, boutiques and a few venues that showcase the work of local artists.
Why Chinatown? Cheaper rent for commercial spaces compared to Waikiki, said Bradley Rhea, who co-owns vintage clothing store Barrio Vintage. Chinatown already hosts Hawaii’s alternative art scene. “You get the same vibe you’d get in New York,” Rhea said.
Block parties, like the annual Hallowbaloo, attract scores of gallivanting young people to Chinatown streets. Fong, who is also co-vice chair of the Honolulu Liquor Commission, said underage drinking and disorderly behavior are concerning, but he emphasized the events are an important way of bringing “a different type of clientele” to the area.
It’s arguable that Chinatown is experiencing gentrification. New restaurants catering to higher-paying patrons continue to open.
“You’re not going to attract the local Chinese to pay $32 for a prime rib. They’d rather get a bowl of wonton men or fried rice,” Fong said.
While these restaurants won’t attract local Chinese customers, Fong argued new development won’t kick them out either. Instead, they create another point of attraction to the neighborhood.
Chinatown community leader and downtown neighborhood board member Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock said she worries that rising rent costs can encroach on Chinatown, pushing out businesses that cater to kamaaina and immigrant communities in favor of high-end establishments.
One of Chinatown’s biggest dilemmas may be the recent increase in homelessness there.
“We know the problems of Chinatown. It’s not a secret,” said Daniel Holt, the Democratic nominee for the state House seat being vacated by Rhoads, who is running for the state Senate. Homelessness and drug sales plague Honolulu’s former red light district.
A ban on sitting or lying on public sidewalks in nearby Waikiki has pushed more homeless people into the area, Rhoads said.
“After ‘sit-lie’ went into effect in Waikiki, we did get a pretty good spike in homeless people in House District 29, both in Chinatown and in Iwilei,” Rhoads said.
Public defecation and trash are common, a constant source of frustration and disgust for both business owners and residents. Landmark Chinatown venue Hawaii Theater, which manages neighboring Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, plans to build a wrought-iron fence around the park to enforce its hours.
Homeless people have resources in the area, too. The city recently opened a public restroom with showers on Pauahi Street. The River of Life Mission in Chinatown serves three meals a day and people line up on the sidewalk hours before meals are served.
Six years ago, community members, including Fong, opposed and ultimately defeated a proposed Housing First project along River Street, advocating instead for an affordable senior housing complex with a community center on the ground floor. Their efforts resulted in plans for Halewaiolu Residences, with construction set to begin in 2017.
Once a city-sanctioned tent city, Aala Park is now an unsanctioned tent city. It’s “unusable,” said Holt.
Rhoads offered a different take.
“The skate park gets used a lot,” he said. “The basketball courts and the playground equipment get used all the time.”
Rhea, the Barrio Vintage co-owner, said they chose to set up shop on Nuuanu Avenue because of the neighborhood’s “immense potential.”
Chinatown’s quirky buildings still have vacant commercial spaces, including marketplace kiosks and larger storefronts. Second-story loft space could be transformed into residential units, but the trend toward these types of residential unit has yet to take off.
American Savings Bank announced plans to build its headquarters at 230 N. Beretania Street at what’s now an a empty parking lot across from Aala Park.
The city’s Chinatown Action Plan is designed to give the area a face-lift and the city has held frequent meetings to update the community on its efforts. The city’s ongoing rail project has brought optimism for the area, despite being desperately over-budget.
“There’ve been a lot of action plans over the years for Chinatown,” Rhoads said. “Rail will change things, probably for the better. If we do it right, it will help on the affordable housing end of things. If you build the affordable housing near the rail station before the rail gets there then you’re good. Otherwise it all gentrifies.”